The American History of Clam Chowder

“It’s chowdah! CHOWDAH! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you all!”

~Freddy Quimby

clam chowder

The existence of what we generally refer to as a clam is a simple one. They are small little mollusks that spend their whole life completely immobile until a human comes along, boils them alive, and eats them unceremoniously alongside literally dozens of its slayed brethren. Don’t feel too bad for them, though, because they’re delicious.

Okay, fine, if that’s not enough of an excuse, uh, let’s say…all clams are racist? Yeah, every clam is like, suuuper racist, like “you don’t feel safe when they start talking, and you’re like, Scandinavian” racist. Better? Yeah, fuck those guys! That’s why we have a duty, as Americans, to slaughter them in droves and cook them in rich, satisfying stews.

Clam chowder is a dish that even people who don’t eat clams still like and enjoy. If someone said, “I don’t like clams, they’re too rubbery, also that racist thing is still messing with my head” they would still see “clam chowder” on the menu and want to order it, despite literally half of the words in the dish being things they actively dislike.

That is because clam chowder, at its very core, is an inherently American dish—it’s not nearly as widespread as, say, hamburgers or pizza (sit down Germany and Italy we took the ball from you and ran farther with it, those are ours now) but it is one of the best soup options out there, especially for that asshole boss of yours with the shellfish allergy (just tell them that clams don’t count, and that promotion will be yours in no time!)

That’s why today we’re going to take a moment to set you aside, but a warm bowl of creamy seafoody cholesterol in front of you, and tell you about the history of one of the first American soups.

The American History of Clam Chowder


Chowder likely originated during the 16th century in fishing villages in England and France.  In fact, it’s believed that the word “chowder” derives from the French term “chaudiere” which means “boiler.”

We know, the fact that France has a part in this is depressing, but at that point chowder was basically just a bunch of fisherman tossing their fish into a hearty stew.  That ancestor of chowder came with the Pilgrims to America where, in the early 17th century, it began to truly evolve.

Now, originally we stuck with making basically a fish stew, because American settlers thought (incorrectly) that clams were shitty. Clams and mussels were fed to their hogs because, and this is an incredibly snarky quote from the 1620s, they were “the meanest of God’s blessings.”

Seriously, next time you go to a restaurant that’s truly awful, make sure that your one-star Yelp review includes the phrase “it was the meanest of God’s blessings.”

So in the 16th and 17th century, we focused on making fish chowder, and in 1751 the first known written fish chowder was printed in the Boston Evening Post on September 23rd of that year. And get this, guys—it was a poem.

As in, they wrote a little poem as a way to give you the recipe.

We’re going to post the whole poem below, because that’s the most fucking precious thing, and the 18th century was adorable.

First lay some Onions to keep the Pork from burning
Because in Chouder there can be not turning;
Then lay some Pork in slices very thin,
Thus you in Chouder always must begin.
Next lay some Fish cut crossways very nice
Then season well with Pepper, Salt, and Spice;
Parsley, Sweet-Marjoram, Savory, and Thyme,
Then Biscuit next which must be soak’d some Time.
Thus your Foundation laid, you will be able
To raise a Chouder, high as Tower of Babel;
For by repeating o’er the Same again,
You may make a Chouder for a thousand men.
Last a Bottle of Claret, with Water eno; to smother ’em,
You’ll have a Mess which some call
Omnium gather ’em.

We love that so fucking much.

Considering that chowder ended up being best as a way to get rid of fish that you’d otherwise toss aside, it’s not surprising that around this time clams, another seafood item settlers were determined to get rid of, started to make appearances in these soups.

The first ever published recipe to include clams appeared in 1832, and by 1836 the Union Oyster House, the nation’s oldest continuously operating restaurant in Boston, was well-known for selling a clam chowder that was similar to what we know as New England clam chowder.

Throughout the rest of the 19th century we went farther and farther from fish chowders (though they still exist, obviously) and put a focus, especially on the east coast, on the lovely clam. In the process, clam chowder split into several different but equal varieties.

Ha ha, just kidding, it’s pretty much New England clam chowder or get the fuck out of here in the minds of most Americans, but it’s cute that other regions try. These types of clam chowder were…

New England Clam Chowder

 New England Clam Chowder

You might notice that the early chowders seemed to be missing something that you associate with clam chowder—that is, the broth was made out of water, and not out of cream or milk.

And truth be told, you don’t have to be able to knock someone into a lactose coma in order to be a chowder, though in general the addition of a shitload of heavy cream to a dish is never a bad thing (okay, unless you’re eating popsicles.  You should not be making popsicles out of cream, that’s gross). The reason why you might assume that it has to be a white soup to be a chowder is because of the prevalence of New England clam chowder, the OG of the American regional chowder world.

The New England clam chowder is either milk- or cream-based, though let’s be honest you’re using cream.

This is a thicker soup than other styles, and usually includes clams (duh), potatoes and onions. The real good ones incorporate bacon or pancetta in there, but that’s mainly for the fat while making the broth.  Some parts of the country refer to this as the Boston clam chowder, which doesn’t seem fair considering that other parts of New England take equal pride in this variety of chowder (especially Maine, who in 1939 actually introduced a bill to the legislature to make it illegal to put tomatoes in clam chowder).

New England clam chowder usually is served with oyster crackers, which you can use as a garnish if you’d rather not crumble it up into your soup and let it sort of soften as it soaks in the creamy broth, which is just another way of saying that you can use oyster crackers as a garnish in your clam chowder if you routinely pass up the best option presented to you.

When made properly, a bowl of New England clam chowder will fill you up to the point that you’ll immediately take a nap, and by the time you wake up you’ll find that you have successfully hibernated through winter. When made improperly, it still does that but tastes slightly less bacon-y because they didn’t use any bacon in it, but apart from that it’s pretty impossible to have a bad bowl of clam chowder, considering you’re just eating clam meat and potatoes simmered in delicious cream.

Manhattan Clam Chowder

 manhattan clam chowder

Naturally, when New England clam chowder became the default clam chowder of the American diet, New York took one look at it and said, “Wait, no one is talking about us for half a second, this must be fixed.”

So they decided to make their own completely different version of clam chowder which replaces cream with the foolish notion that replacing cream with anything could ever make something better.

It’s made with a red broth largely derived from clam juice with tomatoes added to really amp up the color and give it a distinctly different taste, and the list of people who greatly prefer Manhattan clam chowder to New England clam chowder pretty much begins and ends with “people who have lactose intolerance” and even then some people will still choose New England, knowing full well that the next day will be hell for them.

Manhattan clam chowder first appeared in a 1919 cookbook, with Italian immigrants in New York and Portuguese immigrants in Rhode Island likely being the first to decide to use tomatoes for the soup in the mid-1800’s.

While many think that Manhattan clam chowder is perfectly serviceable, it does have one notable detractor in James Beard (yes, that James Beard) who described it as “horrendous” adding that it “resembles a vegetable soup that accidentally had some clams dumped in it.” Damn, tell us how you really feel.

Rhode Island Clam Chowder

rhode island clam chowder

There are several varieties of Rhode Island clam chowder, which seems like a lot of clam chowder variation for a state so small but whatever. Traditionally, the “South County Style” of Rhode Island, which originated in Washington County, has a clear broth with quahogs (which is a fancy word for a hard clam, or where the Griffins live in Family Guy depending on your point of reference) potatoes, onions, and bacon.

Less filling than New England, and less potentially shirt-ruining than Manhattan, this type of chowder makes for a light but tasty clam soup.

You can find New England clam chowder easily in Rhode Island as well, since most tourists ordering a clam chowder in Rhode Island probably assume there’s only one kind of clam chowder and getting a soup that wasn’t thick and white would throw them into hysterics.

Parts of the state also serve a red chowder with a tomato broth base that differs from the Manhattan clam chowder primarily in that they limit the vegetables to onions and potatoes (Manhattan chowder sometimes throws in carrots and beans because that soup is kind of a mess) and they do not add chopped up tomatoes.

New Jersey Clam Chowder

new jersey clam chowder

Even more obscure than the Rhode Island clam chowder is New Jersey’s take on the dish, which is sort of a hybrid between Manhattan and New England, only with asparagus thrown in there because…is asparagus a thing in New Jersey?  Like we’ve never looked at an asparagus and been like, “Oh, those crazy New Jersians, with their diners and their gas station attendants and their asparagus.”

They do rank 4th nationally in asparagus production…which accounts for 1% of the nation’s asparagus, so what gives? Sorry, we know we’ve gotten off track, we’re just super baffled about that ingredient. We’re not saying it’s bad, but who looks at a clam chowder and thinks “if there only was a way this could make your pee smell funny”?

The ingredient list is much more intensive than other variations we’ve covered. A bowl of New Jersey clam chowder involves bacon, onion, clams, potatoes, asparagus, light cream and sliced tomatoes, as well as celery powder, pepper, parsley and Old Bay seasoning.
Most recipes don’t call for the addition of actual light cream, instead opting for the shortcut of canned cream of asparagus soup, meaning that you need a few cans of actual soup in order to make this completely different soup, which for some reason we find to be very amusing yet weirdly appropriate for Jersey.

Delaware Clam Chowder

delaware clam chowder

The kinds of people who formulate opinions on such things believe that the Delaware clam chowder shares its ancestry with New England clam chowder, which makes sense because of the general region where one might find the state of Delaware.

You don’t see it very often currently, as it was most common in the earlier half of the 1900s, but it takes fried cubed salt pork, salt water, potatoes, onions, quahogs, butter, salt and pepper to make a heavy, but not as creamy, chowder dish. Current recipes call for milk, which basically means that if someone today were to make you Delaware clam chowder, you’d end up eating a New England clam chowder with a bunch of butter in it.  Which, come to think of it, sounds amazing.

Hey Campbell’s, when are you gonna start giving us some canned Delaware clam chowder, huh?

Hatteras Clam Chowder

hatteras clam chowder

“What the fuck is a Hatteras,” you are probably saying unless you’re from the East Coast and are asking, “What, you don’t know anyone who vacations out on Cape Hatteras?”

It’s basically an island, and an unincorporated community, on the Outer Banks.  For the past 200 years or so,  the Outer Banks has made their own clam chowder recipe, which is basically a slightly thicker Rhode Island clam chowder.

It has a clear broth with bacon, onions, potatoes, clams, and is thickened with flour and seasoned with a shit ton of pepper. Green onions and hot sauce can also be added if that’s something you’re into.

It’s a pretty basic dish that you’d be able to make pretty cheaply when, you know, you’re on an island in the Atlantic Ocean—just scoop up some clams, cook ‘em, and use the water to make a soup. It’s essentially the reason why we started making clam chowder in the first place, before we realized how much adding some heavy cream makes it even better.

Minorcan Clam Chowder

minocorn clam chowder

With the Northeast being responsible for so much clam chowder variety, it was just a matter of time before Florida got impatient and tried to get in the game. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s not batshit insane.

It’s served in restaurants near St. Augustine in the Northeast corner of the state, it’s named after the residents of the Spanish Balearic island of Minorca who made their way to St. Augustine in 1768.

Minorcan clam chowder has a tomato broth, but unlike the other entries listed here has a pronounced spiciness from their use of the datil pepper, which is an extremely hot pepper similar to the habanero which tradition holds will only thrive when grown in either Minorca or St. Augustine.

Additional ingredients outside of the standard clam chowder gambit of onions and potatoes are included, primarily in the form of green peppers, carrots, and chopped tomatoes, and salt pork is included as well. Honestly, if you don’t see pork included in a recipe for a clam chowder…just go ahead and add some bacon in there. No one will blame you, unless you can be blamed for taking something tasty and making it great.

Which leaves us with just one final type of chowder (there are totally more types of clam chowder out there, but if we didn’t list it your favorite, we either didn’t find it, or we think it’s bad and that you’re wrong for liking it)…

Long Island Clam Chowder

long island clam chowder

Long Island Clam Chowder is a relatively new kind of clam chowder that combines one part Manhattan clam chowder and one part New England clam chowder. It’s pretty much just that simple.

We’re not sure if it’s a great idea or a terrible one, but we’d at least be willing to give it a chance. There’s not much difference between the Long Island Clam Chowder (so named because Long Island is roughly between Boston and Manhattan, har har, do you get it?) and a cream of tomato soup that just has some veggies and clams in it. That’s probably fine? It’s probably fine. At the very least, it’s clam chowder, which means it’s better than any soup you’ll ever see from Armenia.

The important thing is that America invented clam chowder, and has been using it to fill the bellies of even those Americans who don’t like seafood with clams and vegetables in delicious style for hundreds of years.  So hell yes to that.


2 responses to “The American History of Clam Chowder

  1. Wow, do YOU get off on the wrong foot (anticipate the pun) here. A clam is NOT an immobile bivalve. It is the oyster which must attach itself to something shortly after its birth, and never is able to move voluntarily thereafter. Softshell clams, hardshell clams, and scallops have their respective modes of getting around.

  2. Pingback: How to Make Boston Fish Chowder - Fearless Eating

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s